Acts matter. Here’s how Dahr Jamail, a young mountain guide and volunteer rescue ranger in Alaska (who did freelance writing in the “off-season”) describes his rash decision, back in 2003, to cover George W. Bush’s Iraq War in person: “I decided that the one thing I could do was go to Baghdad to report on the occupation myself. I saved some money, bought a laptop, a camera, and a plane ticket, and, armed with information gleaned via some connections made over the Internet, headed for the Middle East.” That was it. The next thing he knew he was driving through the Iraqi desert from Amman, Jordan, toward Baghdad and directly into the unknown. He had few contacts; no media organization to back him; no hotel/office with private guards to return to at night; no embedded place among American forces for protection; not even, on arrival in Baghdad, any place to write for.
Call that a shot in the dark. The result? A singularly remarkable running account of what Iraq actually felt like, of what life for Iraqi civilians actually was like after the shock-and-awe onslaught of March 2003 devolved into the endless occupation/catastrophe we all know so well. Jamail, who has written regularly for Tomdispatch these last years, has now published a book on his time on (and always very close to) the ground in Iraq, Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches from an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq. Unnerving as it is to come, once again, upon the real face of the American occupation, largely seen through Iraqi eyes, Jamail’s new book is also a gripping adventure to read, the odyssey of a neophyte becoming a journalist under the pressure of events.
In reviewing the book for Mother Jones magazine, Nick Turse recently wrote:
“I suspect Jamail’s account will prove an enduring document of what really happened during the chaotic years of occupation, and how it transformed ordinary Iraqis. To paraphrase one of the Vietnam War’s finest correspondents, Gloria Emerson, writing about Jonathan Schell’s exceptional accounts of that conflict: If, years from now, Americans are willing to read any books about the war, this one should be among them. It tells everything.”
You get a sense of Jamail’s forceful, reportorial style from a passage in a recent piece of his, “Iraq Has Only Militants, No Civilians,” on how the Pentagon has worked to control the media landscape as well as the Iraqi battlespace:
“Whether it was ‘incidents’ involving helicopter strikes in which those on the ground who died were assumed to be enemy and evil, or the wholesale destruction of the city of Fallujah in 2004, or the massacre at Haditha, or a slaughtered wedding party in the western desert of Iraq that was also caught on video tape (Marine Major General James Mattis: ‘How many people go to the middle of the desert…. to hold a wedding 80 miles from the nearest civilization? These were more than two dozen military-age males. Let’s not be naive.’), or killings at U.S. checkpoints; or even the initial invasion of Iraq itself, we find the same propaganda techniques deployed: Demonize an ‘enemy’; report only ‘fighters’ being killed; stick to the story despite evidence to the contrary; if under pressure, launch an investigation; if still under pressure, bring only low-level troops up on charges; convict a few of them; sentence them lightly; repeat drill.”